To say Jharrel Jerome’s acting career is off to a hot start would be an understatement. At 21, he has already starred in an Oscar Best Picture winner—2016’s Moonlight. And his latest role, in Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series When They See Us, is winning rave reviews (Oprah, an executive producer on the show, went on Instagram to praise his “incredible performance”). In the series, Jerome plays Korey Wise, one of five teenage boys of color wrongly convicted in the notorious Central Park Jogger case of 1989.
At a recent Netflix FYSEE panel you were among a group of stars, including Michael Kelly of House of Cards, who were dubbed “scene stealers”. Do you feel like a scene stealer? It’s certainly meant as a compliment.
It’s an honor to be a scene stealer [laughs]. Who’d have thought? Yeah, I don’t know. It’s still hard to grasp most things that are going on for me. I think everything is overwhelming because it kind of came so fast for me and came out of nowhere. So I’m just trying to hold on and grasp tight to everything I know.
What did you know about the Central Park Five before you auditioned for When They See Us?
Growing up [in the Bronx], it wasn’t like I studied it. If it was spoken in my house, it was a story among other stories. It was almost a lesson—“Be polite to the police, don’t be out late, and don’t hang with the wrong crowd.” I didn’t hear of the story in depth until Ava posted an article on the Central Park Five on her Instagram page and said, “I’m going to bring this story to life for these men.”
You’re the only one of the young actors to play your character as both a teenager and an adult.
It wasn’t the plan for me to play both parts. I went out for young Korey Wise, but the problem was I had this beard. I was working on a show [Mr. Mercedes] and I could not shave it. When I have the beard, I look about 35. When I don’t have the beard, I look about three-and-a-half years old. I auditioned with all the facial hair, and Ava couldn’t see past it. So four, five months go by, I wrap the show, and I find out that she had not cast Korey. I shave my face, go straight to Ava’s office in New York. When I came in with a babyface, she was so confused. She was like, “Wait, tell me how old you are.”
I read the young part, and then she gave me the older part to read. The next day she called me and said, “I want to give you a challenge. I want to give you young Korey, but your challenge is I’m also going to give you old Korey.” And I flipped out. I couldn’t even breathe, it was unreal.
How much of a break did you have between shooting the young Korey scenes and the older Korey scenes?
If you notice, Korey’s not featured in Part 3 at all. They spent about three-and-a-half weeks shooting Part 3. And so while they were shooting that, I was in the gym six days a week, twice a day. I was eating 3,500 calories a meal. I gained, I think, 14-15 pounds, but eight of the pounds were muscle. I was growing in my beard, I was growing out my hair.
As part of your preparations for the role you met with the real Korey Wise.
A lot of being grounded in myself was spending time with Korey, understanding that who he is today is exactly who he was before he was in prison. I think he rebuilt who he wants to be and who he is. You could not even tell he went through what he went through. Just his spirit, how strong he is—he will give you a hug no matter who you are. He says hi to everybody in the streets of Harlem. He went and bought me a pair of sneakers and I begged him not to. That’s just who he is as a person.
Spending time with him is how I found those qualities of the younger Korey—that naïveté, that joy, that happiness, that youth that he had. Then it was just simply about breaking it down slowly as I got older in the scenes. It was about stripping those one by one, stripping the naïveté, then stripping the joy, then stripping the faith, then stripping the hope. And then year by year as it goes along, it’s weaker and weaker.
Do you have thoughts on what the case of the Central Park Five tells us either about the America of that time before you were born, or America now?
I think it tells us that unfortunately there’s not too big of a difference from America then and America now. You still have stories like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. On the opposite end, you have stories like Casey Anthony, where she gets let off. It’s a very warped justice system.
One of your main scene partners in When They See Us was Niecy Nash, who plays your mom. What was it like to work with her?
She’s exactly who you might think she is. She doesn’t hide who she is, and that fierceness in her. She immediately has that mama bear quality to her, that you want to be embraced by Niecy Nash. You want Niecy Nash to love you and take care of you. It wasn’t like I had to find a connection with her, or, “How do we make this work?” It came the second I met her on set.
Before When They See Us you had this remarkable experience of Moonlight, playing Kevin at age 16, a character who is possibly gay. It’s another atypical, challenging role.
Yes, absolutely. When I shot it, I knew that it was going to be beautiful, I knew that it was going to be a good project, but I didn’t realize the impact that it would have. And I didn’t realize the impact that I would have, getting messages from all over the world from all kinds of people saying, “Thank you, thank you for doing this film,” and, “You have inspired me.” That hit me in such a precious way.
How did you get into acting, and reach a place to take on very complex roles like that?
It actually for me happened in a span of four years. I went to LaGuardia High School; it’s a performing arts school [in Manhattan]. Before I went there, I didn’t have any acting training or knowledge at all. I didn’t know what a monologue was. It wasn’t until I was 13 when I decided I didn’t want to be in high school in the Bronx. I wanted to step out and leave my community, and leave the negativity and the dangers that could possibly present themselves if I went to high school there. I wanted to just expand. And my mom came up with the genius idea of acting. It was an audition process to get into LaGuardia, and I got in. It was a blessing.
Did you have to do a monologue for the audition?
My mom went into a small little drama bookshop in the city and grabbed the first thing she saw that said, “Teenage Monologue Book.” We found one funny one where I was confronting a school bully, and I was talking crap, and then I run away at the end. Then a dramatic one where a guy was at his best friend’s funeral. It’s really heavy now that I think about it, for a kid who really never did acting before. We worked on them, my mom and I, every night, as if we were Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. We were there on her bed, going over the lines, and she’d be like, “No, no, no. I don’t think you look angry when you’re saying that. Try to look angrier.”
She was a good scene partner, it sounds like.
Everything I am now is because of her. That’s why I pride myself on being a mama’s boy.
Where do you want to go next in terms of roles?
Bottom line is my next project, or my next few projects, I pray that I can find work that is impactful and that challenges me as an actor. I want to skip over the happy-go-lucky films, I want to skip over the easy pay checks. I want the challenge, and I want to always inspire. I know that sounds cliché, but Denzel [Washington] always inspired, from the smallest role to the biggest role. He always did. So I want to follow in those footsteps and not just do this acting thing because it means fame and success and money. To me, it’s not about that. For me it’s about the work, and it’s about being on set and finishing, and being like, “I feel like I’m a better actor and a better human because I just did that.”
How are you handling all the attention you’re getting at age 21?
I’m just learning. I just feel like a kid all the time, like I’m a 12-year-old boy on a playground, just watching the adults do things, and learning and adapting as I go along. And just hoping that I do it right. I have a very grounded family, I come from a lot of support and love. As long as I stay with that and they stay with me, I think I’ll be good.